Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Small Pupfish in a Big Oasis

-Edgar Bernal Sevilla, Curation/Education Staff

Edgar Bernal Sevilla & Richard Barnes at beginning of conference
This week Richard Barnes, a former museum intern, and I were invited by my boss, Dr. Neal Hitch, to attend my first museum conference as a museum professional.  It was the Western Museums Association Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was both exciting and intimidating, and a great experience.

At our first conference mixer, Neal directed me to get two business cards: one from someone at my general rank, and one from someone with way more experience than me. I ended up succeeding (after a few drinks), emerging from the crowd a few hours later with the business card of a young Chicago saleswoman and a titan in the exhibit design industry. Success! 

Steve Hoza, Nadia Arrambla, Neal Hitch, Berlin Loa
The sessions the next day varied from extremely interesting to somewhat disappointing. I got some fantastic ideas from some sessions, while others were just lectures about what seemed (to me) like common sense. While I was awed at first by talks from museums with hundreds of employees or millions of dollars in their annual budgets, the overall feeling I got from the conference is that our tiny little museum in the middle of nowhere is actually pretty cutting edge. 

Lael Hoff, George Ramirez, Michael Connolly Miskwish, Kelly Hyberger. San Diego Museum of Man
My favorite session had to be one on Tuesday titled “Decolonization of the San Diego Museum of Man.” It is safe to say that it was one of the most diverse panels in the conference. The diversity was also extremely refreshing because you could see different perspectives about a wide variety of topics from different cultures including the Kumeyaay and Hispanic communities.  I was thoroughly impressed with their work decolonizing the San Diego Museum of Man and they seemed to me the model of a diverse organization: one where different backgrounds and perspectives allowed for a much greater effectiveness solving problems to achieve one goal. It was inspiring and I made sure to get a few business cards from SMoM.

Neal Hitch & Edgar Bernal Sevilla at Arizona Science Center
All in all, attending the WMA conference was a fantastic experience. I came back with many new ideas and much stronger confidence in my own abilities as a museum professional. I had never thought about making museum work a career, it always seemed like a means to an end, but coming back from that conference made me feel empowered, like there was no museum problem I couldn’t tackle. Seeing how my little tiny museum stacked up with the rest of the museums in the American West made me more confident. The conference made me feel like I could go anywhere and be more than competent at any facet of museum work (probably not true but that was my feeling). Seeing how many skills I had that other people in larger, more specialized museums don’t have also made me feel extremely capable. I shouldn’t let it get to my head, after all, I have less than a year of experience doing this, but I feel that, if I stick to this profession, I’m going to do alright wherever life takes me.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

New Olla Comes to IVDM

-from Anne C Morgan, Head Curator

Manfred Knaak, Betsy Knaak, Anne Morgan with new olla
A new olla came to the Imperial Valley Desert Museum today!

The olla, a large ceramic vessel, was brought to the attention of Betsy Knaak, Executive Director of Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, who worked with the donor and the Desert Museum to bring the olla back to the Imperial Valley from Arizona.

This afternoon she and her husband Manfred Knaak, anthropology professor at the Imperial Valley College, delivered the olla to the museum.  The olla was packed in Arizona and no one saw it before it made its journey. The unveiling came when it was unpacked - several visitors were lucky enough to be in the building when the Knaaks arrived and were invited to join. 
Manfred Knaak, Imperial Valley College archaeology professor

Several ollas have come to the museum through families in the last year. Often the ollas were taken out of the desert years ago by someones grandparents. Today, it is not legal to remove artifacts from federal lands. We have been thrilled to work with families to bring the ollas back to where they can be seen by the public.

The new olla will be accessioned into the Museum's collection, carefully photographed, measured, and recorded. Notes will be made of specific features, like the pitch or tar repair along the rim where it was cracked but repaired to continue using.

Copy of original magazine that inspired Larrabee to search for gold
Donated by David Larrabee, the olla had been found by his father Robert over fifty years ago somewhere in the "Borrego Desert".  Robert and his friends, inspired by a magazine article in True West, went in search of gold.  While they never found any, Robert did find this olla, "the only treasure the Borrego Desert was to share with me."  Now, thanks to the generosity of David Larrabee and his family, the olla will be shared with the public in the Museum's Visible Storage exhibit, and may teach researchers something new about the story of people and the desert.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Knapping Through Time

-Edgar Bernal Sevilla, Curation/Education Staff

Edgar Bernal Sevilla: participant and researcher 
Today, I had a sudden primal urge to explore my roots. I followed them to the very end: the prehistoric era. So I left my cushy work station, grabbed some things out of the museum’s recently unearthed (summer cleaning, you know how it goes) flintknapping kit, and walked outside. I went looking for Jacumba formation basalt, which is what many stone tools of the indigenous desert dwelling Kumeyaay are made of, grabbed a spherical stone and got to work. *Thwack* *thwack* went the stone. Chunks of my hammerstone had come off. My flawless Jacumba basalt stayed flawless. This was going to be tougher than I thought. Three hammerstones and two ruined pieces of Jacumba basalt later, I was ready to give up. But then I remembered that I could make arrowheads and spear/knife blades from the flakes that had resulted from my failed experiments. So then I failed at that. “I’m doing the same thing the guy on Youtube did!” I angrily whispered to myself. 

One measly arrowhead to show for it
Out of five flakes, I had one measly (and ugly) arrowhead to show for it. “I’ll give the big pieces one more try.” And so, like magic, I started getting the hang of it. I changed my hand position and hammering technique, and then, all of a sudden, the flakes were coming off more or less the way I planned for them to with every hit. The end product was an extremely crude hand axe, the type you’d find in homo erectus sites. At least it was ergonomic. I was victorious. My boss Anne took a bunch of pictures and I was fulfilled. My inspiration for this? My work with the Childers Collection.

Edgar working with the Morlin Childers Collection papers
As some of you might know, I’ve been working on cataloguing and curating the collection of the late Imperial Valley archaeologist Morlin Childers. The collection deals mostly with early man in the Imperial Valley, covering largely Kumeyaay and Cocopah territory. As I often tell my coworkers, I approach the collection not as an archivist or a curator, but as a detective. Instead of just cataloguing, I pore over documents, attempting to learn as much as I can. I wrote a paper on Childers in one of my historiography classes, and I’m currently taking an archaeology class at IVC in order to better understand the material. There are mysteries to be solved, and as the one assigned to the case, Detective Edgar will be the one to solve them! 

Edgar experiments with flint knapping
But there’s more to it than solving mysteries. When I become fascinated with a historical topic, I, like many others, want it to come out of the paper. I want to see the subject matter in front of my eyes. If I’m researching a subject in medieval India, I’ll play classical Indian music and pore through period art while doing so. If I’m researching a figure from the Mexican Revolution, looks like I’m eating tamales and listening to old Mexican war hymns. It’s a way to combat subject fatigue, a very serious problem for researchers who can be studying the same thing for months or even years. The Childers Collection is no different. In order to keep my interest level at where it needs to be, I need to see, touch, and taste what is happening. I’m still waiting for my mesquite trees to sprout their pods, which I will then devour (or spit out, but hey, at least I’ll know what they’ll taste like), but for now I have stone tools, of which there are many in the Childers Collection. Now I get to put myself in the position of the people that discarded the artifacts Childers picked up hundreds or thousands of years later. Perhaps next time I do it, I’ll be chewing on some mesquite seeds. Either way, crossing the line between participant and researcher, even if it’s something as superficial as turning on some music or eating some imitation food, is something that I consider extremely valuable to my work, and is something that could help many others in theirs. 

Edgar's first attempt at flint knapping

And, although I am apparently dumber than a Neanderthal, I value this h. Erectus lousy handaxe, since the cuts and abrasions on my hands (I didn’t put gloves on till the second half of my time knapping) likely mirror what a 5 year old ancestor would’ve felt trying his/her hand at toolmaking.
Edgar with his first attempt at flint knapping

 I travelled through time, returned, and now it’s time for the 3 C’s: curation, cataloguing, and coffee. Some things are a little better in this era.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Olla Project begins

-from Anne C Morgan, Head Curator

Frank Salazar placing small olla in new, archival, box
Today we began an exciting new project.  Thanks to funds from a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation Grant, we were able to buy archival supplies that will provide safer, more secure storage for many of the ceramics that are not currently on display in our Visible Storage exhibit.

Angelina Coble "This was so much fun!"
Cultural Collections and Program Manager, Frank J. Salazar III, a member of the Campo Kumeyaay Nation; Head Curator Anne Morgan; and Education staff Angelina Coble spent today building archival boxes, choosing ceramics that would fit the boxes, photographing them, updating their records in our PastPerfect database, and carefully placing them in the new boxes.  Archival, non-reactive foam padding placed inside the boxes will help to pad the ollas, meaning less jostling in the event of an earthquake.  Creating labels with photos on them means less handling of the artifacts, which means they are more secure.  And the ability of the boxes to stack means that storage will become easier, safer, and there will be more room for additional artifact boxes.

While it will take several weeks to complete, this project is a win-win for the museum and the artifacts entrusted in its care!

New boxes means more efficient, safer, storage!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Celebrating and Interpreting the Desert

-from the Director

Current outdoor trails in the front of the museum lead to picnic benches
Our visitors want to learn about the desert. This has been made clear by the last several months we have been collecting information from visitors and members in preparation for completing a new five-year Strategic Plan.  In July, we acquired and protected two new parcels of land adjacent to the museum through a grant from the Protect Our Communities Foundation. The new properties will allow us to develop outdoor programming in the future, and part of the Museum’s long-term plan must now look at addressing questions and opportunities outside of the museum.

The Great Outdoors
The Desert Museum has a mission to preserve, celebrate, and interpret the desert.  Celebrating and interpreting the desert can take many forms. We are just beginning to think about outdoor exhibits and displays around the museum. Touchable displays, guided nature walks, and informational signs are all methods of enriching the visitor experience by highlighting the importance of what people experience outside of the museum – in the actual desert.  Outdoor exhibits are meant to make people think about their experience, and to make new connections between the information they learn and their previous perceptions.  We do not know what our exterior exhibits will look like, but with the protection of the property surrounding museum we can now start thinking about it. 
Future trails will allow visitors to explore the desert with outdoor art, seating areas, and signage

Outside, Inside
As the Desert Museum begins the interpretive planning process that will lead to outdoor trails and exhibits, the main question is: what do visitors want?  What interests them?  How do they want to have information presented to them? 

In 2013 and 2014, we spent many months testing and developing interior exhibits.  The results of that work can now be seen in the new permanent exhibit Land of Extremes. This week we began testing some early sign ideas for exterior exhibits. This work will continue throughout the next year and we are hoping that many of our friends and members will come out and participate in this exciting phase of exhibit development.

4 versions of a sign on roadrunners encourage visitors to think about what they want in outdoor signage
Young visitor Lexi Romo writes down what she likes best about a sign
What kind of signs will interest people in the animals of our desert?  The staff was inspired by a roadrunner, a regular museum visitor, to start testing ideas and getting a feel for the kind of information visitors want about local animals.  Visitors coming out to the museum can, for the next few weeks, look at four different test signs and decide what they like and what they want to see that is currently missing.  Do people want a map of the animal’s habitat?  What their tracks look like? Fun factoids or just basic facts?  Single panels or ones you have to flip open?

The current signs have been up for a week and already the staff has learned a lot.  So far visitors have all loved the idea of signs that include identifying the animal’s tracks.  But people have been split on preferring single panel signs and flip signs.  Those that like the flip signs are split on the idea of whether the first panel should be a picture of the animal or a more teasing “You Might See A . . . “ that extends visitor interaction by forcing you to open the panel to see what animal it is talking about. 

Visitor feedback on these early ideas will be the basis of conversations as the museum works with graphic designers and exhibit builders to create future outdoor exhibits that meet as many visitor expectations and interests as possible. 

A visiting roadrunner inspired the newest test panels in the museum
Each one of the test signs contains similar basic information on the Greater Roadrunner.  For example:
·      Diet: Lizards, snakes, insects, mice, scorpions, seeds, fruit
·      Predators: Hawks, owls, cats
·      Size: 24 inches long from beak to tail.  10-12 inches high
·      Tracks: The unique shape of a roadrunner’s foot leave a single-file line of X shaped tracks

Because of the additional space available on flip signs, more information can be added.  Is there a point where people get bored by too many words?  Or are you still interested to read:
  • ·      Roadrunners can run almost 20 miles an hour.  Fanning their wings and tail lets them stop suddenly and turn on a dime
  • ·      They make a range of sounds from clicks and coos to beak clacking

What about fun facts like:
  • ·      The Greater Roadrunner’s scientific name Geococcyx californicus means “ground dwelling cuckoo”
  • ·      Roadrunners are in the same family as the cuckoo bird because they share a similar zygodactyl foot shape
  • ·      A group of roadrunners is called a “marathon” or a “race”

This article can also be seen in Saturday, September 3, 2016 Imperial Valley Press. IVDM's Land of Extremes series.